By Oren Kaunfer
Growing up, I attended day school, Jewish camp, youth group, and shul every Shabbat, and it was truly wonderful. These times were filled with joyfulness, and brought friendships and memories that will be with me the rest of my life. These formative years connected and rooted me to my Jewish foundation. What I rarely experienced in all of these places, however, was soul-stirring davening. It was not until I was 23 and wandered into the Carlebach Shul in New York City that it suddenly dawned on me: davening can be fun and exhilarating. Fifteen years later, as madrich ruchani (spiritual educator), I wake up and spend my weekday mornings davening with middle schoolers. I want to be the one to open their eyes to that feeling of exhilaration. Trust me, it is a much tougher crowd to win over than any I ever saw at Carlebach.How do you get middle schoolers to engage with t’fillah? The truth is, I have no idea. But I am in my second year working on figuring it out at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. I have hits and I have misses, and that is how it should be. You can’t expect to have a spiritually uplifting experience every time you open a siddur. It is unrealistic.
A keystone for me is singing. Music is central in the lives of teens, so I capitalize on that. When I say singing, I am not talking about droning through Mah Tovu: I mean singing. Belting it out. Making the walls rumble. I transform the amud (lectern) in our beit knesset (sanctuary) into a thumping drum, and I encourage the students to “out-thump” me. Shakers, darbukahs (goblet drums with goat-skin heads), chair slapping, and hand clapping are core elements of our t’fillah. A number of students simply don’t engage with the words in the siddur, but they have taken on a percussive role and add at least as much to the communal experience as anyone else in the room. New melodies are also vital to waking up the kahal (community). Learning and teaching new tunes can take time, patience, and guts, but the dividends are paid when the students’ voices gel. Some students even feel a sense of ownership of that moment.
Unfortunately, these aren’t things that are always easy to tell people to do. I can’t tell a seventh grader to sing with more ruach. But I can do it myself, and if I do it genuinely, and with joy, then that enthusiasm might be contagious to him or her and a few of his or her friends. If the teachers in the room aren’t sincere in their davening and their excitement, then they can’t expect anyone else to be either. Here is one thing I can guarantee: a room full of t’fillah police will never lead to a student thinking that prayer is a joyful experience. Rather than policing the room, teachers should be saying and modeling t’fillah, and demonstrating their enjoyment of and engagement with t’fillah.
According to Rabbi Eliezer, “If you make your prayer a fixed unchanging task, it is not sincere/supplication/tachanunim” (Berakhot 28a). In other words, keep it fresh. This is the greatest challenge in t’fillah. Nonetheless, it is such an important guideline, and something to which I frequently return. Like anything in school, timing and scheduling can make innovation difficult. But whenever possible, out-of-the-box t’fillah can go a long way. Last year, necessity was the mother of invention when I took 25 fifth graders on a walking Shaharit because the beit knesset was occupied. We created a progressive t’fillah as we walked off campus to a local farm and pasture. During Birkhot Hashahar, we got to thank an actual sechvi (rooster) and enjoyed a powerful individual amidah spread amongst the hills. We concluded by huddling under a giant tree for aleinu. The t’fillot, the melodies, and the participants were all familiar, but the surroundings were new. A year later, a sixth grader recalled that day as one of the most spiritual moments of his young life. You only need to change one variable to create a radically different experience.
It is important to lead with verve and innovate whenever possible, but it is even more important to let the students be leaders and innovators. I recently started a “t’fillah think tank” that was spawned from an eloquent letter I received from a 7th grader that detailed the shortcomings of our t’fillah. I was not surprised that many students feel that t’fillah has shortcomings. What did surprise me was the number students who attended the optional lunch meeting to discuss it. The wide range of opinions and the fervor with which students expressed their views was a testament to the students’ passion. You might not think that middle schoolers care much about an 8:00 a.m. t’fillah experience, but these lunch meetings proved otherwise. Students were jumping out of their seats to offer solutions to the challenges we identified.
We always teach students to lead t’fillah, but now we teach them that they have the power to change it.T’fillah is the voice of the community, so let it be just that. Sometimes that voice is singing or banging, and sometimes that voice is creating, complaining, and problem solving. And hopefully these students will not just have meaningful t’fillah moments in middle school, but will carry them beyond our walls and on their own paths.
These students will go on to have rich and meaningful Jewish lives, but undoubtedly, at some point, they will find themselves in a bland davening situation. My hope is they will draw on a moment from their JCDS memory bank when they were moved by t’fillah. The memory of a single moment could change their experience 20 years down the road. Or better yet, maybe they’ll get up and do something to make a change for everyone around them. And they’ll do it with a smile.